This post was originally published on August 31, 2015.
People get sober in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they just quit on their own. Sometimes they go to rehab. They show up in 12-step rooms, ashrams, churches and their parents’ basements. There is no one right way—something we’ve aimed to show in our collection of How I Got Sober stories. While we initially published these as either first person essays by our contributors or as interviews with anonymous sober folks, we eventually began to realize that there were other stories to tell: yours. This is our reader spotlight and this, more specifically, is Laura.
Click here to see all of our How I Got Sober stories.
What is your sobriety date?
July 14th, 2007.
Where did you get sober?
Washington, DC metro area. Merrifield, Virginia, home of my health insurer’s IOP.
When did you first start drinking?
I was 17 when I got drunk for the first time. Incidentally, that was also the first time I had a whole drink—beyond a sip of rum and Coke in middle school. After that summer, where my fellow US Embassy interns called me “the alcoholic” (perhaps a sign of what was to come), I didn’t drink until my first year of college. It continued for the next six years, until the fateful night of July 13, 2007.
How would you describe your life before you quit drinking?
If life can be considered a drink, mine was diluted with so much anxiety, fear, shame, guilt and sheer terror of what would happen to me if I kept drinking that there was no real life anymore. As much as I loved being the life of the party and being someone whose armor of panic could be zapped away by drinking, I was at that point of desperation when I woke up, still drunk and absolutely horrified, in a hospital on July 14, 2007 that I sought help.
What was your childhood like?
My parents raised me well. We had a good family dynamic—your typical upper-middle class suburbia meets diplomatic living overseas: Mom, Dad, older brother and the family dog. Nothing resulting from my upbringing (not to mention lack of alcoholism in family history) made me susceptible to substance abuse. What did put me at risk was that I suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), anxiety and panic attacks. The OCD has always been there, like an extra appendage. I didn’t know what to call it until I took a Psych 101 class in college. And I figured, until I looked at my textbook, that I was the only one in the world who had compulsions and bizarre obsessive thoughts. I was on an island—not to be dramatic, but that’s truly how I felt.
Outside of my family life, I was bullied in school—in elementary, middle and high school to varying degrees. Being sensitive made me a pretty easy target and kids took advantage of that. Years of bullying on top of my pre-existing mental illnesses (or chemical imbalances—whatever you want to call them) made me ripe for going overboard in later years.
When did you start drinking?
The summer before my senior year, my brother and my close circle of friends graduated from high school. While they went off to college, I was a world away—literally, in a different country, finishing my high school education, but having to start over with making friends and getting comfortable at a small American-international school.
That’s when the almost daily panic attacks started to creep up on me. I skipped assemblies and field trips. I excused myself from class so many times so I could just breathe without everyone staring into my soul (sounds like teenage histrionics but my anxiety really did make feel exposed). By some miracle, I graduated from high school with honors and went off to the University of Virginia, where I could start anew and people didn’t know me as the nerd or the geek or the girl who was bullied.
And of course, everyone drank. So I joined them.
What do you consider your bottom?
Oh God, the night of July 13, 2007. Definitely my bottom. Not to say I didn’t have other bottoms—this wasn’t my first hospitalization. I had done a lot of really shameful things while drinking, but this event, for whatever reason, was my catalyst for change. Explicit details can be found here.
Did you go to rehab?
Yes, although not in a 28 days and possibly ritzy inpatient rehab. It was a dingy building where Kaiser Permanente had a behavior health intensive outpatient program. Five weeks, three times a week at two hours a pop, coupled with 15 hours of Alcoholics Anonymous. Had to get my “detention” slip signed every time!
Did anything significant happen while in rehab that is important to your sobriety?
Not a light-bulb moment, no but there were a couple of small things (tangible and intangible) that amounted to change. One was reading Koren Zailckas’ Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood. The other was that since a lot of my group’s sobriety dates kept changing and mine stayed the same, I developed a teeny, tiny inkling of pride that ended up growing exponentially.
Did you go to AA?
Yep, on and off for a while. There’s a lot of anti-AA vitriol out there, just as much as there’s “AA is the only way” gospel. I wrote about my experience in the program—and want to show others that it can be part of your recovery without being the be-all-end-all—or if it isn’t, that’s okay, too.
Besides rehab, what did you do to seek help and stay sober?
I have a great therapist who I see on a regular basis. I’m also on an anti-depressant, which really helps stabilize my anxiety and panic. I have absolutely no shame in taking a medication to help me. Exercise and being out in nature (beaches and forests are my favorite places to have Zen moments) also make me feel more connected to the universe. Anything I can do to be a student of life, as cheesy as that sounds.
What do you hate about being an alcoholic?
According to AA, I’m an alcoholic. I’m powerless over alcohol (although it should noted that I am empowered in and by my recovery) and my life had truly become unmanageable by the time I got sober. But these days, I don’t use “alcoholic” as an identifier. Even though “sober” may basically be an antonym for “drunk,” I’d rather say I’m sober or that I’m in long-term recovery. Those terms respect my past hardships but show the progress I make now and will make in the future. “Alcoholic,” for me, is a constant reminder of the past. So I guess what I hate most is the label—and, of course, the whole “wreckage of my past” business. It took me a while to rebuild relationships with family and close friends but the greatest and most challenging relationship re-build is in the relationship I have with myself.
What do you love about being an alcoholic?
I never in a million years thought that at 24, I would be setting myself up for a beautiful life in long-term recovery. I’m proud of my sobriety, with all its ups and downs—because I’m truly living life now. If I hadn’t had my brushes with fate (aka hospitalizations) or been through hardships A-Z, I probably wouldn’t cherish life as much.
What are the three best tools you have acquired to stay sober and happy?
Having a great support system (like friends in recovery, a supportive family and a therapist), self-care and learning to let go and not take things so personally are all part of spiritual growth. Bonus: reading lots and lots of recovery memoirs and self-help books.
Do you have a sobriety mantra?
One day at a time. I have it tattooed on my back. It’s maybe not the most original recovery tattoo, but it’s a reminder of my commitment to sobriety. And just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, eight years of continuous sobriety takes eight years of “one day at a time.”
What is the most valuable thing that has happened to you in recovery?
Ironically, after almost eight years of long-term recovery, my sobriety took on new life in April of 2015, when I started The Sobriety Collective and found so many other amazing recovery advocates. All these years I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life—the answer had been right in front of me the whole time! Now I know I want to be a spokesperson for the recovery movement. I want to help others by sharing my story and allowing them to share theirs. I want to help effect change. The hardship and pain I experienced ended up giving me my life’s calling.
Have you worked the 12 steps? What is your opinion on them?
I have. Going through the steps was actually a really invaluable process and made me recognize non-sober behavior in sobriety as well as all the things I did while drinking that I could and should make amends for. I also quickly learned that the best amends to make to someone can be saying nothing at all. Because it’s not all about us—and learning to deflate the ego is an ego-deflating process.
For all that I don’t like about AA, there’s a lot that I do like—and I still apply some of the lessons I learned.
If you could offer a newcomer or someone thinking about getting sober any advice, what would it be?
There’s no right or wrong way to get and stay sober. If 12-step turns you off, try SMART. If meetings in general aren’t your thing, try yoga (or blogging or sports or learning an instrument, etc.). The point is, do whatever it is that makes your life better.
Any additional thoughts?
I’ll be at UNITE to Face Addiction on October 4 in Washington, DC. Will you?
Click here to see all of our How I Got Sober stories.